San Juan's Pier 3, handling the largest cruise ships in the world, will boast a new 2-story building housing restaurants, galleries, entertainment and duty-free shopping.

The project, an $8 million investment by Duty Free Americas, will be the best of its kind in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro García Padilla said during the recent Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association Conference.

According to local news reports, the port authority will pump in an additional $1m for security equipment, and Royal Caribbean is also participating in the project. Completion is planned by 2018.

In 2014, Pier 3 was expanded to handle Quantum- and Oasis-class ships. Harmony of the Seas' first call is scheduled for late December on a holiday cruise.

The Pier 3 retail development is among a host of recent cruise- and tourism-related advances in Puerto Rico following some challenging years.

San Juan

'Puerto Rico has adapted to new realities,' the governor said, adding that the island heard cruise lines' needs, set new policies and is following through.

'We have recovered our prestige,' García said.

Viking Cruises begins calling this month. In 2016, for the first time, Windstar Cruises will sail from San Juan on seven- and 10-day round-trips. Additional business is coming from AIDA Cruises. After a gap of years Norwegian Cruise Line returns to seasonal homeporting from November 2017 to early January 2018.

Starting in winter 2017, the city of Ponce will get calls from Crystal Cruises, Royal Caribbean and Holland America Line.

The Caribbean cruise industry has enormous growth potential, according to Ingrid Rivera Rocafort, executive director, Puerto Rico Tourism Co.

'We need to constantly reinvent ourselves. We are positioning Puerto Rico as a destination of choice,' she said.

Rivera cited the development of posadas and bed and breakfasts, a green certification program recognized by the UN World Tourism Organization and the revamped Isla Verde district, with four new major hotels. Puerto Rico is forging a salsa route and a religious vigil route; both will be available as tours for cruise and hotel passengers. Hop-on/hop-off bus tours will be introduced by the international company City Sightseeing.

All tour operators have had their guides complete training through the Aquila Center for Cruise Excellence, making Puerto Rico the first island to do so.

Passenger ratings rose from 6.8 in 2008 to 7.9 in 2014/15, according to an economic impact study for the FCCA by Business Research & Economic Advisors.

'The cruise industry is the key driver of our tourism industry,' and the sector is in a 'renaissance,' Rivera said.

Passenger numbers reached 1.5m in 2015, a 15% increase in two years. Rivera pledged Puerto Rico's commitment to growing the Caribbean cruise business as a whole by increasing the ships that homeport in San Juan. 

As the region's largest air hub, the island has attracted 13 new airlines, adding half a million seats in the last three years. This year the airport is expected to handle 9.1m passengers, up from 7.9m in 2011-2012.

San Juan will be the home to four consecutive annual FCCA conferences, starting in 2018. It is unprecedented for the FCCA to return to a host destination for multiple consecutive years.